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Gene(sis)

Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics

August 27, 2003 - December 7, 2003

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Eduardo Kac: GFP Bunny (Alba), 2000; photograph; courtesy Julia Friedman & Associates, Chicago.

Five years after the mapping of human DNA comes Gene(sis), a major exhibition exploring artists' visions of a genomic future. Featuring nearly one hundred works by renowned and emerging contemporary artists—including two new commissioned works by prominent Bay Area artists Gail Wight and Jim Campbell—Gene(sis) surveys the potential social, emotional, and ethical implications of one of the most compelling subjects of our time.

In conjunction with the art exhibition, BAM/PFA presents:

Thinking Through Genomics, a series of lectures and a panel discussion bringing leading scientists and academics together with artists on the issue of human genomic research and its implications.

Genetic Screenings, a PFA series presenting some of the more provocative moving-image works that have engaged the genome as either focus or foil.

g-commerce, a virtual exhibition in which artists imagine an online marketplace for genetic merchandise and services.

When auditoriums are brimming over with lectures on advances in genomics, and science museums are mounting countless exhibitions to decipher the mysteries of DNA for the lay public; when the double helix seems to illustrate every other story in the newspaper science section, why should anyone rush to an art museum to see contemporary art responding to human genome research? What can artists possibly contribute to this overflow of information?

In this time of corporatization of almost every public sphere—from the media to museums and even bioethics—experimental art remains one of the few enclaves where imaginative, impractical, non-mundane thinking is still tolerated. Contemporary art serves as an outlet for our lyricism, intellectualism, mysticism, political philosophy, and prophecy. Artists can avoid pragmatic rationalizations and instead find the images to express our worst fears, our desires and expectations, even our sense of complacency. Witnessing this ability to think outside of the formulaic and prescribed gives us hope of being something more than just passive consumers of information. It is heartening that the planning of Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Responds to Human Genomics, coproduced by BAM/PFA with the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, was supported by the Animating Democracy Initiative, thus validating the contribution of contemporary artists to envisioning a post-genomic future.

Gene(sis) takes its name from a 1999 work by conceptual artist Eduardo Kac, Genesis, in which he investigates the philosophical and political dimensions of communication and biotechnology. The artist translated a verse from the Book of Genesis into Morse code (the first code of the telecommunications age), and from there, using a system of his own devising, into genetic code employing the letters of the four building blocks of DNA: A, T, C, and G. Using the resulting sequence of letters, Kac then created actual genetic material and introduced it into live bacteria, which he cultured in a petri dish. By clicking the mouse at the computer terminal in the gallery or on the exhibition website (www.gene-sis.net), visitors will be able to cause mutations in the bacteria (or, by reversing the translation process, rewrite the language in the Bible).

Other works in Gene(sis) engage with the emotional effects of cloning, as in the fictional portraits of a woman caring for her younger clone by Margi Geerlinks; genetic engineering, as in the disturbing photographs by Catherine Chalmers of mice used in transgenic experiments; and bio-technocracy, as in Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's portraits of friends and family, in which human likeness is replaced by bland DNA sequencing. New projects unique to the Berkeley presentation of Gene(sis) have been created by Bay Area artists Gail Wight and Jim Campbell.

Alla Efimova
Associate Curator


Visit the Gene(sis) Exhibition Website.

The exhibition was organized by the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, in affiliation with the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The exhibition is curated by the Henry Art Gallery’s Associate Curator Robin Held and, for the Berkeley presentation, BAM/PFA Senior Curator for Exhibitions Constance Lewallen and Associate Curator Alla Efimova.

The exhibition and related programs are made possible with generous support from the Animating Democracy Initiative, a program of Americans for the Arts, funded by the Ford Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; The Rockefeller Foundation; The Allen Foundation for the Arts; PONCHO; The Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities; SAFECO; King County Arts Commission Special Projects Program; ZymoGenetics, Inc.; and The University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences, as well as in-kind support from Carl Zeiss, Inc.; The Grand Hyatt Seattle; Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media; KUOW Public Radio; WRQ, Inc.; New Concepts Prototyping; Speakeasy Network; Northwest Mannequin; University of Washington Division of Genetic Pathology; and University Bookstore Computer and Electronics Center.

The BAM/PFA presentation of Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics is supported by the Consortium for the Arts, the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, and UC Extension at UC Berkeley, and by The Harold and Alma White Memorial Fund. The exclusive media sponsor for Gene(sis) is San Francisco Bay Guardian.